The morning after election night 2016, I was standing between a steel post and a baby carriage in a crowded Orange Line train in Boston, staring at my phone, when a man turned to me and said: “Go back to your country.” He was white, bigger than I, and older, in his 40s, perhaps. The train was pulling into Back Bay Station, brakes shrieking. Moments earlier, the same man had been behind me, trying to elbow me out of his way, and I’d frowned at him over my shoulder, thinking, Dude, there’s a baby carriage, do you mind? Had I not been made aware of his presence before he’d spoken, his words might have left me speechless. But my irritation had been primed by his jostling, and I heard myself shoot back: “This is my country.” The doors slid open; he surged forward with the crowd. Within seconds, he had vanished into the bustle on the platform, leaving me to face alone the confused stares coming from all sides. People around us would have heard only my words, for he had spoken softly, almost in a murmur. It was as if he were just testing the waters of that new morning, trying to gauge what he could get away with on a crowded train in a liberal-leaning city. It was as if he had been working up to this moment for months, buoyed by the rallies and the tweet storms of the past year, events that had climaxed just hours earlier and whose full meaning I returned to eventually, with glazed eyes, processing it on my phone.
I’ve been wondering what made me declare, in the moment of our meeting, that this was my country, a claim I had never made before. When I introduce myself to strangers in the United States, I usually say something like: I’m from India, from Bangalore; I’ve been here fifteen years; I came when I was eighteen, for college. If they remark that I don’t speak with an accent, I’ll add that I lived in America for two years when I was a small child; that my father had a sabbatical in Dayton, Ohio, in the ’80s, and that I had learned to speak English there as a kindergartner and hence with an American accent; that we had returned to India when I was five years old, and never returned to the United States as a family. I grew up in India, I’ll insist, because I like to believe that I came to America on my own, as an adult in charge of my own decisions, that my kindergarten years in Ohio don’t count because I had no say then. The words I came to America carry for me the promise of self-discovery, the thrill of becoming the person one can be only when removed from the pressures and expectations of home.
A few years ago, when I was traveling on my own in Novosibirsk, Siberia, my host asked me if my husband was Indian. “No,” I said. “He’s American.” “Ah, but what does that mean?” the Siberian said with a touch of impatience. “Anybody can be American.” What he really wanted to know was whether my husband was of Indian origin, whether I had married within or outside of my culture. I was endeared by the impatience in my host’s voice, by his notion that the title “American” was so broad in its scope, so widely accessible, that to say someone was American was to say very little.
In Siberia, as in other far-flung places of the world, the idea that anybody can walk into America and become American might seem unremarkable. But within America, as I experienced on the Orange Line train that morning, the same morning that a Muslim woman riding a bus in Oregon was told by two white men that she was a terrorist and a school kid in Washington said aloud to his classmates, “If you weren’t born here, pack your bags,” the myth Anybody can be American can flip quickly to its converse: Go back to your country.